Archaeologists working near Aswan, Egypt, have announced their discovery of the burial of a pregnant woman who likely died in childbirth. Dating back 3,700 years, the burial represents an important find for the growing understanding of reproduction and childbirth in the ancient world.
This new discovery, announced Wednesday by Dr. Mostafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was found in the region between Aswan and the site of Kom Ombo, well know for its unique Ptolemaic-era double temple dedicated to two gods. This region is currently being investigated by the Aswan-Kom Ombo Archaeological Project (AKAP), directed by Dr. Maria Carmela Gatto of the University of Leicester and Dr. Antonio Curci of the University of Bologna.
Within a cemetery dating to 1750-1550 BC, the AKAP archaeologists discovered the burial of a woman in her mid-20s at the time of her death. Tiny bones were also found in her pelvis, those of a near-term fetus with its head down, the typical position when birth is imminent.
Based on abnormalities noted in the front of the woman’s pelvic bones, the team’s lead osteologist Dr. Mindy Pitre of St. Lawrence University tells me that the birth was compromised. “While it is impossible to determine the cause or timing of death of both the woman and child, it is clear that the woman’s pelvis showed signs of misalignment, suggesting possible injury or health issues during life,” Pitre wrote in an email.
A fracture, infection, or secondary osteoarthritis affecting the pelvis can compromise a woman’s ability to deliver a child naturally; without today’s intervention in the form of medicine or surgery, it is entirely possible that a previous injury could have contributed to this ancient Egyptian woman’s death, as well as that of her baby.
In a press release, Dr. Gatto also describes the burial as somewhat unexpected. The woman was buried with her knees pulled close to her body, and she was wrapped in a leather shroud. She was buried with two pots: a well-used Egyptian jar and a red-and-black polished bowl. Oddly, unfinished ostrich eggshell beads were also discovered. “It is possible that in life she was a well-regarded bead-maker and her family placed such a large amount of unworked material in the grave to honor her memory,” Gatto notes.
This new find contributes an important data point to the archaeological evidence of death in childbirth because, in spite of the fact that maternal and infant mortality are assumed to be high in the past, there are only a couple dozen examples of burials of pregnant women in the archaeological literature, including a Medieval case of ‘coffin birth’ and a mother and her fetus killed by Mt. Vesuvius that I found last summer at the site of Oplontis.
Bioarchaeologist Sîan Halcrow and colleagues Nancy Tayles and Gail Elliott, experts on reproduction and childbirth from an archaeological standpoint, write in a recent paper titled “The Bioarchaeology of Fetuses” that “there is very little evidence for in utero fetuses in the bioarchaeological context.”
Part of the reason for the lack of data may be due “not to the absence of evidence but rather to the small bones being missed or misidentified during excavation” or simply not properly published, Halcrow and colleagues believe. They also caution that complications in childbirth are not always due to injury or obstruction, but could also be related to maternal health issues. Fetuses, they conclude, can answer central questions about the past in terms of population demography, fetal health, and sociocultural aspects of pregnancy and death.
This discovery of the death of a woman and her baby four millennia ago in Egypt provides us with a window onto pregnancy and childbirth in the past. More than half of the graves in the cemetery have been excavated and fully recorded already thanks to support from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the University of Bologna, and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. However, the cemetery had been looted and damaged recently during construction of housing structures. Additional work by AKAP will hopefully reveal more about a relatively unknown time period in Egyptian history and about the daily lives and deaths that occurred.